Moshe’s career as prophet-king had its ups and downs, but with the crisis at Mei Meriva – the Waters of Conflict, it reached its nadir. This was not the first time that the children of Israel demanded water in the desert. At the beginning of their trek, a similar event happened at Refidim. There, the people complained about the lack of water and Moshe responded by striking a rock and drawing forth water. Now, towards the end of the desert trek, under similar circumstances, Moshe again drew forth water from a rock. This second time, however, something went awry. Moshe drew water from a rock but something he did was seen by God as disloyal and sinful: “But the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon, ‘Behold you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead the people into the land that I have given to them.’” (Numbers 20:12)
Here, as in many of the Torah’s stories, details of the exact nature of the act and what made it sinful were left indeterminant. This left the sages with great latitude in defining the meaning of the story. Consequently, one can find a plethora of different explanations for what it was that Moshe did wrong to deserve such a fateful punishment.
One midrash recounts the story this way: ‘And Moshe and Aharon assembled the congregation in front of the rock’ (Numbers 20:10) This comes to teach that each and every person saw themselves as standing before the rock… They began to say: ‘Moshe surely knows how this rock works. If he only requests, water will flow forth for us from it.’ So, they said to Moshe: ‘Behold a rock. You want to bring forth water from this rock, bring it forth from that rock [instead].’ So, Moshe was in a quandary. [If he listened to what the people wanted, he would be defying the word of God and if he did what God wanted, the people might not discern that it was a miracle.] Moshe responded harshly, shouting back: ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water out of this rock?’ (Numbers 20:10) (adapted from Tanhuma Hukat 9)
After over forty years as leader of the people, Moshe’s job was no easier than when he started. Should he bow to the popular will, right or wrong, or should he do what he thought was right, regardless of popular sentiment. The answer to this question, as we know from our own day, is not an easy one. This led the author of this midrash to quote a verse from Job: “Who traps the clever in their own wiles…” (Job 5:13) Sometimes, neither option assures a successful outcome.
In the end, what was Moshe’s sin according to this midrash? The answer here is also seemingly inconclusive. Was it the fact that Moshe equivocated over whether to follow the popular will or God’s charge? Or was it Moshe’s frustration which led to an outburst of anger at the people, denigrating them by labeling them as “rebels”, which marked him for a fate similar to theirs? In either case, God felt that Moshe’s leadership did not sufficiently substantiate the people’s faith. Ultimately, we are left to conclude that even for someone of Moshe’s stature, there is no escaping the fragile nature of leadership.